Moving From The Individual To The Communal

In Dr. Gushee’s reflection about following Jesus from a Baptist perspective, there were several facets I connected with, as I also identify as Baptist and serve as an executive pastor in a Baptist congregation. More specifically, I see a significant benefit in his statement that to follow Jesus means “reorienting one’s life to serve Christ with everything,” which can lead Jesus followers to understand that churches are not simply individuals but rather “covenanted communities of disciples.” While I strongly agree with such a perspective, I struggle with how to concretize and make real such a proposal. Dr. Gushee offers a wonderful multi-layered approach (social, ethical, political, etc.) for how the Baptist tradition can be reinterpreted to develop disciples of Jesus who aim to love others. But how can such an approach be developed in our hyper-individualized culture where many are often more concerned with their needs than those of their neighbors’?

Dr. Gushee’s emphasis that to follow Jesus means making a life commitment to His way largely defines what it means to follow Jesus in the Black (Baptist) tradition. I have spent my entire life in Black Baptist churches and being a disciple of Jesus has often meant more than a verbal affirmation of a belief in the death, burial, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus Christ. To use Dr. Gushee’s own language within this Black, Christian and (for the purposes of this response) Baptist context, following Jesus is “demanding, open-ended, and lifelong,” and one “never arrive[s]” but is always on the way with more learning and growing to do. There is never a moment in the Black Church tradition in which one declares she has figured out fully what it means to follow Jesus; to do so would be an act of extreme hubris. Rather, being a disciple of Jesus is a process that one experiences daily, with the intention that each day, one grows in her ability to live into the ways of Jesus even amid life’s disappointments and valleys.

But again, we must not forget Dr. Gushee’s call that this work is not individual, but communal. We follow Jesus when we fulfill His words in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, take care of the sick, and support the least of these. Black congregations have been doing this Jesus work for centuries, as our institutions have often been one of the few spaces that were concerned with the well-being of African-Americans. It has been in our houses of worship that Black Americans developed the organizing skills to serve in political office, create financial and social opportunities for Black communities, and assert the humanity of Black Americans. While there has certainly been an erosion in the influence of Black churches (and sometimes, rightfully so due to the ways said institutions occasionally engage in harmful practices and individualistic, “me-first” rhetoric), there are some faith leaders in these congregations that attempt to emphasize that following Jesus means to be concerned with our neighbors.

This paradigm of communal faith engagement is critical because it can help us reimagine a faith tradition that has becoming entirely too individualistic and therefore lost its communal ethos. If we truly embrace the Baptist approach to following Jesus as outlined by Dr. Gushee’s reflection, then we need to be committed to embodying our faith as we live in the world. There should never be a time where we are not concerned with how we can be of assistance to those in our communities. We may not have the capacity to facilitate grand gestures of support, but there is always something we can do to imitate Jesus’ model of caring for others.

However, while I agree with much of Dr. Gushee’s work, I struggle with the how: how are we to begin shifting our framework of following Jesus from an individualistic one to a communal one? We live in a capitalistic and consumeristic world in which people, including self-professed followers of Jesus, often make decisions that will benefit them and them alone. I see this tendency all the time in how people select which church they will attend. Instead of making the decision to go to the struggling congregation that needs help (which arguably Jesus would have done), many choose to engage the congregations that will most fit their desires for dynamic worship and preaching, robust programming, and financial stability. We have a laundry list for what will make us happy and fulfilled in a congregational experience. If a church does not meet these requirements, many Christians look for another congregation, often with little to no regard for how their presence might be an opportunity to add what programming or practices are missing. As a result of such an approach to congregational life, countless Christians end up causing significant harm to communities. When people constantly choose to center themselves rather than their neighbors, they take their financial, human, and social resources that could help to rebuild a community and at best, offer them to a congregation that does not have the same level of need or at worst, hoard these resources and simply take from the institution which they have now selected as their “church home.”

I realize that it is a significant sacrifice to ask people to invest in a less stable community with limited resources. Humans, including Christians, have needs that should be addressed. We cannot be so service oriented that we do not take care of ourselves; even Jesus withdrew often to pray and refresh Himself. Therefore, to follow Jesus does mean there is a level of concern we should have for ourselves and what is necessary for us to thrive. Furthermore, a person’s investment may or may not increase the vitality of the community. We cannot save every church; there are some institutions that will unfortunately cease to exist due to the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have nots.

But I believe that our current over-emphasis on the self does not exemplify what it means to follow a Jesus that was chiefly concerned with making the world a more inclusive and loving place for all of God’s creation. Dr. Gushee’s thoughtful and engaging response is thus encouraging me to take the next step and ask: how can we create communities of Jesus followers that grow in their commitment and willingness to care for others?